Police Accountability Self-Advocacy Toolkit

From 2015 to 2022, 123 people in Maryland were killed by the police. This number is too great and doesn’t even count the people, families, and whole communities who survive so much physical and mental harm from needless – often racist – run-ins with police. This institutional failure is made worse by flawed “accountability” structures designed to protect police and bypass justice.


This self-advocacy toolkit (self-kit) describes ways a person may use existing, though inadequate, accountability structures. We also hope this self-kit will highlight the flaws of the system and encourage you to change it. To see how the ACLU of Maryland works to reform systems and upend white supremacy, please see our Issues page.

We see policing as a major part of a larger blanket of oppression against many communities. The inevitable result of these connected systems is harm against you, your neighbors, and people you love. The recommendations of this self-kit may not restore these harms. For resources that can better support you or others in healing and restoration, please see Appendix A: Community Supports on page 15.

Our best advice for using this self-advocacy toolkit:

  1. Take what you need, leave the rest. These recommendations will not perfectly address every policing experience; if something here doesn’t apply to you or simply did not work, we hope other strategies are a better fit.
  2. Expect to experience shortcomings. These methods call on a deeply flawed system, which rarely operates according to its express intent. Think of your effort as activism loudly calling out wrongs but understand you may not get a satisfactory response from the government or public.

At the ACLU of Maryland, we are rooting for your victory in accountability and healing. Hopefully, this self-kit will help along the way.


We value feedback to make our service better. Do you have recommendations or know of resources? Have you found success or challenge using this self-kit? Let us know!

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Harmful police encounters are no trivial matter. Yet, police commonly control narratives by creating a competing version of police encounters, approaching rights violations much like a strategy game. Police have privileges, like immediate access to lawyers, video recordings, and the power to shape a false narrative through reporting systems.

Taking notes about what really happened while your memory is fresh and gathering records quickly can help equalize this disadvantage. We want you to start at – not behind – the “GO” line.

Remember: You are the expert on what happened to you. You don’t need to be perfect, and you don’t need to remember everything exactly. You know how the officers made you feel and what they told you, so lean into that, especially if officers exaggerate or dishonestly report facts later.

You are not alone. You are just one person, but there are many more people and organizations who have felt or witnessed police misconduct. Later, we list resources that may provide more support or advice to you.


Unfortunately, many improper police encounters result in serious physical, emotional, and mental injuries. We encourage anyone harmed by police to prioritize their care, treatment, and recovery first.

While this section suggests urgency in responding to police encounters, you should take time for recovery and return to this process only when you’re ready.

Once you’re safe, note the details and timeline of your police encounter in as much detail as possible. This first record can be just for personal use – you may be upset, use strong language, or jumble timing as you process your experience – but you can reference this later when consulting your attorney or filing complaints.

Consider: a voice note description, videorecording yourself, bullet points in a note app on your mobile, or any quick method available.

The point is to preserve your feelings and memories quickly while they’re fresh.

  1. WHEN? Consider context, such as a call/text before the incident, your most recent meal, or where the sun was in the sky, to pinpoint the incident time.
  2. WHO? Review details of officer clothes or colors/markings of police vehicles to confirm department; don’t assume their department based on your location.
  3. WHERE? Remember landmarks, mile markers, or nearby road signs to help pinpoint location.
  4. WHAT? You may not recall every detail but record everything you do remember.
  5. WHY? Include both the reason officers told you and any reasons for the stop you suspect. Officers rarely admit to discrimination.

If you later retain an attorney, the records you collect can support their investigation. You can find a fillable form in Appendix B: Incident Memory Form on page 17.

Other things to do after your encounter:

  • Keep and digitize copies of all records cops gave you (snap a photo on your phone & send to someone you trust, save on your computer, etc.).
  • Take photos of any injuries and keep records of any medical treatment received.
  • Note any missed work, appointments, and any financial losses (lost wages, damage repair, impound fees, medical costs, etc.).
  • List of nearby businesses or structures that may have had cameras (ATMs, gas stations, toll gates).
  • List the number of witnesses, identifying anyone you recognized.



Once you get your memories recorded, your next steps depend on your kind of encounter.

Choose the description that closest matches your incident:

  • If you have a citation, property damage, or a criminal charge from your police encounter, you may need an attorney ASAP – more details and recommendations at “Caught a Charge” on page 6.
  • If you walked away from the police encounter with no citations, charges, property damage, or property taken, begin at “Collect Records” below.

If you have a citation, property damage, or a criminal charge from your police encounter, you may need an attorney ASAP – more details and recommendations at “Caught a Charge” on page 6.

If you walked away from the police encounter with no citations, charges, property damage, or property taken, begin at “Collect Records” below.



You have your memories from the police incident, but the police agency began creating documents the moment the police decided to stop you or pull you over. There may also be other parts of the government that created records. You should find ways to get copies of as much as you can as soon as you can. Here are some examples though all may not apply:

  • Body-worn or dash camera footage
  • Police or incident report
  • Statement of charges or citation
  • 911 call recordings and/or transcripts
  • Use of force report
  • Search form or inventory list of items seized (taken by police)
  • Bystander mobile phone or business surveillance videos

Most of these records – the ones created and held by the police department – are usually publicly available to you under "Anton’s Law," which is part of the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA).1

Although the purpose of the Maryland Public Information Act is to make most government records available to anyone – and the purpose of “Anton’s Law” is to make police records public – the government can say “no” in some cases. You can find a sample police records request under the MPIA in Appendix D: Templates & Attachments on page 20.

You may also be required to pay money for the records since it takes time and staff to pull them together. The police may ask you to pay extremely high amounts of money to deter you from getting the records. See the following resources for details about which records you can ask for, what to do if your request is denied or there are high fees, and other questions:


In the devastating event that someone’s life is lost while interacting with police or law enforcement (like correctional officers of jails and prisons), there may be a medical examination. After the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) completes their review, the Office issues the cause(s) and manner of death – which is documented on a death certificate – and a more detailed medical analysis of how a person died in a medical examiner (ME) report. You may want to see the death certificate and report, but there are rules controlling when a ME report is created.

So, when is a ME report created? Usually, medical examinations are done when a person’s death is suspected to be caused by violence, suicide, suddenly without apparent cause, or in any suspicious manner.2 Medical examiner (ME) reports are typically public information you can request under the PIA law, but there may be exceptions. Practically, there are often delays in release of ME reports which are longer than estimated by the OCME. There are also fees for copies of reports – similar to other public records, and the amount of the fee depends on the requester’s familial relationship to the person who died.3 If you or someone you know was denied an ME report or waited longer than a year to get one, please contact the ACLU of Maryland Legal Advocacy Team.

Changing a Medical Examiner Report

Medical examinations are important to police accountability in two key ways: 1. the cause and manner of death recorded on the death certificate, and 2. the detailed explanation of how a person died in the ME report.

If the medical examiner decides the manner of a person’s death was accidental, natural, or undetermined while the person was with police, advocates and lawyers will have fewer legal pathways to hold police accountable. Language used by OCME on death certificates and in ME reports impact how courts view the person’s death under the law.

Except for the homicide manner-of-death designation, families may ask OCME to correct decisions of cause and manner of death within a short 60-day window from the publication of the report. This request starts a legal process in which families may ultimately ask a court to review the ME report.4


The Independent Investigations Unit (IIU) was created under the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021 as an independent division within the Maryland Attorney General’s Office. The IIU is responsible for investigating police-involved deaths and is required to give a report of its findings to the State’s Attorney’s Office within 15 days of completion.  The IIU is relatively new, but we have seen their investigations usually involve law enforcement agencies, but not typically inside places of detention.


1 Maryland Code, General Provisions § 4-311. This means you should be able to submit an MPIA request for any records related to past misconduct of the officer(s) you encountered. If you asked the police for these records under the law and were denied, please submit an intake to the ACLU of Maryland Legal Advocacy Team.
2 Maryland Code, Health – General §5-309 (2008). For more details about death investigations, please see the OCME FAQ website.
3 COMAR Find the request for Medical Examiners Report form here.
4 The above appeal process was improved thanks to the tireless advocacy of Rev. Marguerite Morris; countless other community advocates – especially Ms. Tawanda Jones – helped us develop knowledge in every issue area of this guide. To protect their anonymity, they are not all named here, but we cannot overstate the value of courageous everyday people in exposing police misconduct.
5 Maryland Code, State Government § 6-602(e)(1), available at this website.


If you are considering a lawsuit against the police department, it is extremely important that you send a letter stating your intention to seek monetary award in court within a year of the incident.

This notice letter is not a lawsuit. Your letter gives the government knowledge that your claim exists and extends your time to file a lawsuit. The notice letter is like calling a manager when an employee violates a rule: the police did something wrong, and the notice letter informs their “boss.”

State law requires you to send your notice letter to different officials depending on the police agency involved. Please consult the Maryland Tort Claims Act6, and the Local Government Tort Claims Act7 for specifics and consult the tort letter resources in Appendix D: Templates & Attachments on pages 21-23.

General guide for which agencies fall under which law:

  • Most municipal, city, or county “police” departments are local agencies.
  • Maryland State Police & Department of Natural Resources Police are examples of state agencies.
  • Most “sheriff’s offices” and Baltimore City Police Department are examples of police that are all-in-one local and state agencies.

Submitting tort notice doesn’t require an attorney, but the rules can be confusing; when in doubt, always contact an attorney to protect your claims.


6 Maryland Code, State Government § 12-106, available at this website.
7 Maryland Code, Courts & Judicial Proceedings § 5-304, available at this website.


Being the target of discriminatory policing is terrifying enough, but you may also walk away with charges that may result in jail or prison detention. This entire legal process is stressful to the accused, their family, and others in their communities; it may be difficult to focus and remember rules, so get an attorney immediately and follow their advice. With that said, remember there are people and advocates supporting you. Community support is critical during complicated and stressful times like these.

Whenever you are in police custody (before or after arrest), here on our Know Your Rights webpage are the main things to remember:

  • Police will try to speak to you throughout your encounter to fool you into giving evidence, but once you have been arrested or told you are not free to leave (detained), police must advise you:
    • You have the right to remain silent. Once you clearly say you want to remain silent, police must stop asking you questions.
    • Anything you say to them may be used as evidence against you later. Police can lie to persuade you to speak, so don’t say anything at all.
    • You have the right to an attorney. Once you ask for an attorney, they cannot ask you any questions until an attorney is present.
    • If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.
    • Beware: If you start talking to police after they stop questioning, those statements may later be considered evidence in any case against you.
    • Beware: Police do not have to read a script to advise you of your rights; they can use any words that fully communicate your rights.8


  • Under the 2022 Child Interrogation Protection Act, police must make efforts to reach a guardian and allow a child to consult an attorney before interrogating the child.9 Read details of our victory securing due process for children in the legal justice system in our 2022 General Assembly Report.
  • Maryland police are required to use age-appropriate language to explain a child’s Miranda rights under this law.
    • However, your children should know their rights already (start on our Know Your Rights page) and memorize two emergency mobile numbers just in case.


Find a criminal defense attorney to handle criminal charges first – before getting more records beyond what you already have. If you want to file a civil lawsuit about a police incident later, you must generally resolve the related criminal case first.10

Start your attorney search with the Office of the Public Defender on their website, good referrals from your contacts, or the county's lawyer referral services listed in Appendix C: Legal Services on page 18.

  • You should ask questions, get comfortable, and carefully read the retainer contract with your defense attorney – regardless of whether they are private or a public defender – to decide whether they are the best fit for your case.
  • Once you sign a retainer, your defense attorney works for you regardless of cost. Ask whatever questions you need to understand your case – this is about your freedom.

You always have the right to fire any lawyer or public defender. However, the court may refuse to appoint another public defender or grant extra time while you find a new lawyer. Try to resolve any differences with your attorney, and carefully consider the consequences before firing your attorney.


In Maryland, you respond to the accusation that you committed a crime (charges) by pleading not guilty, guilty, not criminally responsible by reason of insanity, or nolo contendere with consent of the court.11

You may be offered a plea agreement, which is an offer from prosecutors to accept guilt for a lesser charge or for a lenient sentence to avoid the unpredictability of trial. However, entering into a plea agreement usually means you accept some guilt for some charge. This is why plea agreements are treated as “convictions” even if you did not go to trial or were immediately released from detention. These convictions can impact other areas of your life, such as immigration status12, employment, housing, or access to education and public benefits.

For more details about different pleas, read Appendix E: The Different Pleas on page 25.


Ask your lawyer if community support could help or hinder your case. Community support can help court watch for a fair trial, fundraise legal fees, and expose problem officers, but may also increase unwanted or unhelpful public attention to your case. Your attorney is best situated to coordinate your defense and media strategies with you.


8 For a more complete explanation of Miranda requirements, see Cornell Law School webpage. For more info about threats to Miranda protections, see this ACLU blog.
9 Maryland Code, Courts & Judicial Proceedings § 3-8A-14.2, available at this website.
10 For the detailed rule, please see the court opinion from Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994).
11 Maryland Court Rule 4-242, available at this website.
12 Public defenders are required to give a Padilla advisal to clients whose immigration status may be affected by a criminal case. This means the public defender must explain the immigration consequences of their criminal cases, including plea agreements. If the client is not advised and the criminal result negatively impacts their status, the client may have a basis to challenge the criminal result later. Find the court opinion that gave this rule its name at this website: Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010).



A civil lawsuit is one accountability measure for police. However, a major flaw of our court system is its inadequacy to restore immeasurable loss.13 Litigation more easily provides monetary awards than system changes to stop misconduct.

Further, lawsuits can continue for years, are expensive, and add stress to an already painful experience. For example, the court process often requires the harmed family to endure questions by police lawyers, who may dishonor the person who died to win. Families may also be asked to give over personal devices, reveal social media activity, and other intrusive asks.

Finally, this is the civil process – any other penalties against the police require criminal charges or workplace discipline, which are different processes. For these reasons and others, we want you to have a realistic understanding of the civil legal process.14

Before you can make some legal claims based in state law, you must have already sent a notice letter to the government within one year of the incident (which – if properly done – would give you three total years to bring your lawsuit). For details regarding this notice letter, please read “Important Due Dates” on page 6.

The flow chart below shows key points in the civil legal process, but please understand this is a simplified generalization, and few cases progress exactly this way.

Civil Process roadmap. Picture of a road with stops along the way. 1 is to file a complaint. 2 is police and you exchange motions. 3 is Police file a response. 4 is research and strategy. 5 is Discovery and depositions. 6 Mediation. 7 Trial. 8 Decision.

1. You file a complaint in federal or state court15 and your complaint must be “served” to the police agency according to the court rules.

  • The complaint must state all the facts important to your case, name all the parties involved, and list all the legal claims you intend to prove in your case. We strongly urge you to get an attorney for your lawsuit to ensure you the best chance of success.
  • Writing a complaint is very difficult – your entire case could be thrown out of court if the complaint is not drafted correctly, and legal claims are complex.
  • There are important differences between filing in state or federal courts (See footnote 15.).

2. The police will likely ask the court to dismiss your case through a written request called a “motion.”

  • You will have a chance to reply to that motion, and usually the case doesn’t progress until the judge decides whether to grant or deny the motion.

3. - 5. If the case survives motions, the police will reply to your complaint, fully explaining why they haven’t harmed you or broken laws. At this point, you and the police have a clear idea of the core arguments of the case; this begins a research period to detail case strategy, and both sides will submit requests for documents (discovery) and record key witness statements under oath (depositions) to use as evidence in the case.

6. The court will usually require mediation at some point to determine whether the case can be resolved without a costly trial.

7. The critical phase of pre-trial preparation and trial occurs. Both you and police will organize all the laws and evidence into a cohesive, straightforward argument for the judge and jury.

8. After trial, the jury will decide what evidence are facts, and the judge will decide which laws apply, and award to the prevailing party.

This process is a very broad overview and does not include every stage of every lawsuit. Again, we strongly recommend you consult an attorney who is licensed to practice in Maryland courts and may give you the best chance for success.


Finding the best person to represent you is critical. You should shop for legal services the way you would shop for any other service, like medical or tax services: choose the professional who is the best fit for you.

Beware of legal professionals who baldly promise or guarantee a certain result. You should also be clear about an attorney’s hourly fee amounts, payment structure, and the stages of the legal process the attorney agrees to complete for the amount you pay. If you are unclear on fees, you may risk your attorney withdrawing from the case due to nonpayment.

Ultimately, you should consider the following:

  • Are you confident the attorney has the skills and experience to handle your case?
  • Do you feel comfortable communicating with the attorney and find them responsive to your questions?
  • Do you sense the attorney understands your perspective and experience? Or, alternately, does the attorney appear to operate out of concerning presumptions or bias about you, police, or anything else?
  • Are you clear on what the attorney charges hourly, and how much you must pay them to continue working on your case?

Finally, understand you are only represented by an attorney after you have both signed a retainer agreement – a contract between you and the attorney. The retainer agreement will probably answer many of the questions above.

We do not recommend people file police lawsuits without an attorney for many reasons. The judicial legal process is complicated and privileges people who are legally trained and practiced in court process and laws. While it is possible to represent yourself, it is very difficult to successfully bring a claim against the police without formal legal training and experience. Even the most experienced attorneys are challenged by the barriers to winning police misconduct cases.

If you are unable to retain an attorney and must represent yourself, the People's Law Library of Maryland has detailed recommendations you may find helpful. People representing themselves in court without the assistance of an attorney are known as pro se (“PRO-say") litigants. However, we recognize a critical flaw of the American legal system is the high costs of legal services and relatively short due dates for most people.

Understand that filing a lawsuit is a significant undertaking even with representation. Filing your own briefs and appearing for all hearings is a substantial time commitment which may be disruptive in other areas of your life. Proceeding pro se should only be done after long, careful consideration; the footnote contains additional resources for pro se litigants.16


13 The most common remedies from civil suits are listed and described below:
   -Preliminary relief: temporary court orders to prevent further harm until a lawsuit is resolved.
   -Damages: money ordered for loss, injury, pain, restitution intended to restore harm.
   -Injunctive relief: an order to do or stop doing something to cease the harm.
   -Declaratory relief: an order “declaring” that a law or right was violated without money or action.
14 Cornell Law School offers Legal Information Institute at their website, which is a free online resource to understand and research laws and courts, including the civil legal process.
15 Generally, Maryland courts hear cases about the Maryland constitution and laws. State cases may continue into federal courts where there is an issue about federal law or the U.S. Constitution. For more information, please see the U.S. Courts website, Comparing Federal & State Courts.
16 If you choose to represent yourself, here are additional online resources:
   -Pro Se Document Forms
   -Civil rights complaint 
   -Complaint in civil action 
   -Consent to receive notices of electronic filing



If you suffered misconduct by a police officer(s), you should consider filing a police misconduct complaint with the police accountability board (PAB) where the incident occurred. Each county in Maryland and the state are required to have PABs by a 2021 statute17. PABs authorize select people who are not police department employees to review police misconduct complaints. Two jurisdictions in Maryland have had a more powerful kind of PAB called a “civilian review board” (CRB): Baltimore City and Prince George’s County.

In 2023, our legislature – which creates the laws written in our state code – considered two bills which would dissolve the Baltimore City CRB. For the latest information regarding community accountability bodies in Baltimore City, please see the Baltimore City Office of Equity and Civil Rights website.

Each PAB has different processes and eligibility requirements, so you should find the PAB where your police incident occurred and follow their process for complaints. Reviewing the notes and records you gathered will help you thoroughly document what happened in your internal affairs complaint. [Please review “Gather Facts”.] You may even attach key records to support your complaint. However, please do not attach records you are uncomfortable sharing with police. When you file your complaint with a civilian review board, the complaint will be cross-filed with the police agency’s Internal Affairs Department or Office. Your complaint may be investigated by both the PAB and the police department.

You also have the right to file a complaint directly with the police agency’s Internal Affairs Office or Division even if the misconduct isn’t a constitutional violation.

Remember that an Internal Affairs complaint is NOT the same as criminal charges or a civil rights lawsuit against an officer. The internal affairs process is an administrative employment review for discipline by the police department which is different from PAB reviews. Each police department has its own process in place for internal affairs complaints. You should consult the police department website for details; if you are unable to find the information, call the police department and ask for their Internal Affairs form or contact information.

Once your complaint reaches Internal Affairs for investigation (either by PAB cross-filing or direct complaint), be prepared for some police departments to ask for an in-person interview. This may be an intimidating process; if you have any hardship after filing a complaint with police or PABs, please contact the Legal Advocacy Team.


Police Accountability Boards Internal Affairs Office
May be less intimidating than complaining to police from the same department you encountered. Often has stronger authority to discipline officers including suspension and termination.
Monitors for patterns of officer misconduct for faster, more public accountability from outside police departments. Can consider all police misconduct complaints – even those insufficient for lawsuits – with no scope limits.
Less incentive to protect police (some members are not police employees) and may strongly advocate for you in the investigation. Investigation creates publicly requestable “paper trail” of problem officers within a department.

Before filing a complaint, you should request and receive all information you want [see “Gather Facts” on page 3], unless the complaint due date doesn’t give you time to await copies of records. Please be careful of any deadlines in the various complaint processes.


Many people want to file criminal charges against a police officer after experiencing harm. We understand and agree that serious police injustices should be criminal because of the great power police hold. Yet, our current flawed legal system often protects police from criminal prosecution.

We do not detail a process for seeking criminal charges against a police officer because prosecutors rarely charge them. If you believe your police encounter involved criminal misconduct: we recommend you gather your facts, consult a private attorney as soon as possible, file formal complaints with either the Police Accountability Board or Internal Affairs Office, and consult your attorney about possibly contacting state or local prosecutors.

You may also do your research into the police agency to find other possible avenues for accountability. For example, some police departments – like Baltimore City – may be under a federal consent decree for breaking laws in the past, which may mean a court monitor or federal law enforcement may review complaints and take legal action.18


Seeking accountability for police harms in court, review boards, and within police departments is a great service to the larger community and important step in protecting people targeted for their race and other identities. However, our legal system doesn’t always prioritize restoring harmed people, nor is it best equipped to do so. Holistic, community-based restoration is gradually entering mainstream and policy discourse in justice. There are longstanding and new organizations and groups which may offer you more direct services now.

  • Roberta’s House is a family grief support network which helps people through the trauma of grief and loss. They provide trauma-informed care and address grief as a public health service. They believe all children, adults, and families suffering the loss or death of a loved one should have support and a safe place to heal and recover.
  • The University of Maryland Rebuild, Overcome, and Rise Center (ROAR) is a survivor-led, trauma-informed, and healing-centered community that provides holistic support and services for victims of crime and systemic injustice.
  • The Coalition of Concerned Mothers supports community by connecting mothers affected by police and/or community violence. The coalition supports legal, legislative, and community driven change. Coalition of Concerned Mothers is open to anyone in the DC/Maryland/Virginia region.

Beyond these established organizations, you may find more local support in faith groups, people in your social network with similar experiences, and even mental healthcare. An additional list of community and support resources is in Appendix A on page 15.


17 Maryland Code, Public Safety § 3-102, available at this website.
18 Additional information about the Baltimore City Police Department’s federal consent decree may be found at the Department of Justice website, and the Baltimore City Police Department website.